Playing politics with our health
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - February 5, 2020 - 12:00am

Now we have the dubious distinction of having the only Wuhan coronavirus death outside of China. Thanks to a President and a health secretary who played politics with our health, we could end up as isolated by the world as China is now if this epidemic escalates.

It was bad enough that we do not have a health infrastructure that can handle a medical emergency like this one. We have officials who are less than professional in handling it as well.

This is in sharp contrast to how the volcanology commission officials handled the Taal emergency. They stuck to science. And given the limitations of science, they played it safe. They refused to kowtow to politicians who wanted them to declare an “all clear” message when that’s not yet so.

Because the Wuhan coronavirus crisis involved China, it clouded the vision of our China-loving President. Duterte said it would be unfair to impose a ban on visitors from China. Instead, he chose to put the Filipino people at risk for an epidemic we all know his administration cannot handle.

We also had the bad luck of having a health secretary who is more politician than doctor. Indeed, it might have been ages since Dr. Francisco Duque last saw a patient as a physician. He spent the PNoy years as chair of the Civil Service Commission.

Dr. Duque must surely know that in the absence of any known cure for this new coronavirus, preventive medicine is the only way to go. That means quarantine of those suspected to have the virus or potentially asymptomatic carriers of it.

If it means banning the entry of anyone, Chinese or any other nationality, coming from the epicenter of the epidemic, so be it. And time is of the essence. With the speed of travel these days, the virus is only a short flight away from our shores.

I hope the professional in Dr. Duque made him recommend to President Duterte to take the drastic move. But when the President felt it was unfair to China, he didn’t stake his job on the right thing to do. He started mouthing the political stakes involved, which is really not his business.

The worry about China reacting adversely is also out of place. Indeed, China itself imposed a travel ban in and out of Wuhan. The ban was extended to the whole province of Hubei, of which Wuhan is the capital.

But even with the drastic action taken by the Chinese, it was too late. Half of Wuhan’s 11 million population had already left the city for the Chinese New Year holiday celebrations.

Among those who left is the couple that took a Cebu Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Cebu, then to Dumaguete and a PAL flight to Manila. The man became the first Wuhan coronavirus death attributed to the Philippines. The woman was the first confirmed infection in the Philippines.

It was so reckless of this administration to have continued to welcome direct flights to Davao, Cebu and Manila as well as boatloads of cruise ship passengers. What if even a few were carriers?

“What ifs” are important when dealing with a new virus which has shown a propensity to infect fast and cause deaths. I am sure Dr. Duque learned in medical school that he should assume the worse case scenario, specially because our cities are overcrowded and with very inadequate facilities and capabilities to handle epidemics.

Look what happened because Duterte and Duque dithered in doing the right thing (which they eventually did but much later).

Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific had to belatedly place on quarantine the crew of the flights that carried the country’s first confirmed case of novel coronavirus to Cebu, Dumaguete and Manila. DOH epidemiologists are also over a week delayed in tracing the other passengers in those flights.

Eleven days had already passed. The cabin crews have flown more flights and the passengers have already gone home to their respective communities and have been in contact with other people.

As late as Wednesday last week, Duque saw no need for the Philippines to close its doors to tourists from mainland China. Duque insisted denying entry to Chinese visitors may cause problems since China is not the only country with confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

But no one is telling him to just pick on China. He should have done what the other countries like Singapore, the United States and Russia did: focus on everyone regardless of nationality who had visited China over the last 14 days.

Duque’s assurance that quarantine officials can spot those infected at the airport means nothing because it had been shown the patients could have no symptoms… like the man who died and his woman companion who is still being treated.

It is also not being racist or sinophobic to impose those measures on Chinese tourists. Even within China, almost 60 million people remain on effective lockdown as the country battles to contain the virus.

Singapore whose people are mostly of Chinese ancestry imposed the travel restrictions. The Duterte trolls trying to use the racist card are just out of arguments to defend the indefensible attitude of Duterte in putting Chinese feelings ahead of Filipino lives.

Let us have a strict protocol for handling medical emergencies like this one. And more importantly, implement that protocol even if the politics of doing so may not be good.

Epidemics can take millions of lives in an instant. Epidemics happen because a new bug is on the loose which medical science cannot quickly handle.

Preventive medicine is the only way to go… travel bans, lockdowns… none of those sound pleasant but like all bitter medicines, are necessary to minimize suffering and death.

The President and his health secretary should have learned their lesson from their terrible mistake. But I am not hopeful that they did.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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